16 Jan 2013

Punk Magazine: documenting a musical revolution

In the 1970s, Punk Magazine documented a scene which began in New York with bands like the Ramones, and then spread to Britain to produce the revolutionary sound of the Sex Pistols and the Clash.

“I accidentally saw the Sex Pistols at a gig in Birmingham and it changed my life forever.” So Toyah Wilcox told me this week, nearly four decades after punk exploded onto the British music scene, writes Channel 4 News Reporter Katie Razzall.

At that stage, in the late 1970s, she was a teenager from Birmingham who’d been told she must behave demurely and in a “feminine” way. At the gig, there were “people out there who were misbehaving”. As she puts it: “Suddenly I was in a room of spitting, shouting, angry people. I thought, right, I belong. I’ve found my voice.”

Tony James, bass guitarist in the punk band Generation X and later Sigue Sigue Sputnik, puts it another way: “In 1977, you couldn’t even get cool sunglasses, let alone clothes in Britain. It was so ripe for a revolution.”

He describes listening to the first Ramones album and being stunned by what he heard – a faster beat that revolutionised how British bands would make music in future.

Countercultural vanguard

It’s difficult, all these years on, to get a handle on the impact of punk at the time. In Britain, it became about sticking two fingers up at the establishment, about rebellion, about terrifying your parents. In America, it was different: more cultural, less political.

The scene had begun in New York around a club called CBGBs and a magazine called Punk Magazine. Now a new book, The Best of Punk Magazine, celebrates that era. The content and how much involvement the artists agreed to is almost unimaginable now – Debbie Harry featured in photo stories for the magazine, Lou Reed did an interview over several hours for the first issue when the writers came across him at a Ramones gig at CBGBs.

But this was a scene at the vanguard of a new countercultural movement. The lines between fans and musicians were blurred. None of the bands had been signed, Blondie was unknown at that point, and these new punks – fans and bands – hung out together in New York’s East Village.

Now, of course, the influence of punk is everywhere from graphic design to fashion to music. But back then, it really was revolutionary.